Chris Wiegman Chris Wiegman

My Life as an Imposter

The other day my friend Kevin wrote The Expert vs the Imposter and it’s something that has really hit home for me given my own battles with imposter syndrome over the years. Today I want to take a little time to share some of my own experiences with imposter syndrome and how I’ve come to not just live with it but actually embrace it.

My history as an imposter

For as long as I can remember I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. Some of it can probably be traced back to childhood but it was in college that it really hit home. I was working on a flight degree as a slightly-older student (I took a few years off after high school to pursue what amounted to a whole lot of nothing) and I was now doing something completely new to me with classmates who were largely well off and often had previous flight experience.

I remember trying out for the competition flight team my freshman year and being told I couldn’t qualify without experience yet there were few folks that I could see who ever got on past their freshman year. Clearly I was the imposter. This attitude followed me from freshman year through my roles as a captain at a small airline.

Aviation is a passion-driven career. Many of the people in it couldn’t imagine anything else and couldn’t get where they were without coming from a wealthy background. I had neither that single-minded passion nor the wealth to quickly gain experience. My interests in computers and motorcycles often saw me gain a label as “disconnected” or “not serious” and as a result I couldn’t compete with the fanatical focus so many I had. I couldn’t do an airline internship, I couldn’t finish my multi-engine rating at the school and, in 4 years, I was never “serious” enough to earn so much as a single scholarship (once, when I was the only applicant, a professor bent the rules to let someone else apply after the deadline and I couldn’t even get that one).

I was the imposter, the aloof guy who stood out and could never make it. Strangely though, I was also one of the first of my friends to wear the 4 stripes of a captain flying people from place to place. By the time I switched careers again I had also logged more hours in more types of aircraft than nearly any of my peers at the time. So somehow I was the imposter that was also successful at what I wanted to do with flying.

When I switched careers into tech things were different, yet similar. I was a 28 year old college student again competing against classmates 10 years my junior who, while I was fiddling with flight simulator, were writing code.

In an industry known for its overvaluing of youth I finished my Computer Science degree at age 33 and started my career as a developer, an imposter developer who still had too many interests and was so far from the norm that many around me thought I wouldn’t make it.

It has been 10 years since I finished that CS degree. Throughout the last decade I didn’t want to be the imposter anymore so I decided to become an expert. I went deep on WordPress and focused on it at the exception of nearly everything else. I built, and sold, one of the largest WordPress security plugins on the market. I worked with top universities and top WordPress agencies on sites I guarantee you’ve seen. I lead projects, spoke around the world and accomplished enough that even Kevin, in his article from the other day, listed me as a WordPress expert. Somehow, I wanted to believe, I was no longer the imposter.

Nope, still an imposter

For as hard as I tried to not be the imposter, to focus all my energy and time into a single area I can tell you, without a doubt, that I am still the imposter.

For all that time and effort I found myself, before switching into management, typecast into a role I didn’t feel comfortable in. I couldn’t get away from WordPress and found, instead of ageism, the attitude of “WordPress developers aren’t real developers” when met with trying to do other things.

That’s not all though. I’ve never been a front-end developer. I simply cannot process images well enough to take a design and turn it into code. As a result, while WordPress is changing its direction with Gutenberg to focus solely on designers, I find myself without the requisite skills, or desire to learn such skills, to build most modern WordPress sites. I’m still the WordPress imposter.

Lessons for the aspiring imposter

Throughout all of it I’ve learned a few truths that I think are worth sharing for all of us who feel like imposters at our work.

First, in modern tech we all are imposters to one level or another. Tech changes so fast that we find ourselves constantly learning as we go. If the definition of imposter is someone who claims to know something they don’t then, as software developers and engineers, every single one of us is an imposter in the ever-changing landscape in which we work.

Second, deep expertise pays off in unexpected ways. I used to think I wanted to work on WordPress core but I never could make heads nor tails out of the process and the politics of doing so. I also wanted to build plugins and sites that would scale to huge amounts of users and hits. While neither of these has prepared me for Gutenberg development, both have prepared me to help others build better solutions in and around WordPress. Today I’m one of a handful of folks at my work who is often called upon to provide insight into how to better scale to meet our users’ needs. I might not have gotten to write a lot of the code, but the skills learned beyond code in my experience have made me quite successful as a mentor and consultant.

Finally, I used to think it was a problem to spread myself too thin as a developer and try to work in too many things. Now I realise I was way off on that one. All tech is complex. When you focus too hard on just one part of it you can all too easily miss the point of what you’re working on and the problem you’re solving. That’s not to say you should oversell your abilities, writing good code still takes time in any particular tech. Being willing to jump around and try new things, however, will pay off far more than becoming an expert in a tech that either changes to the point its unrecognizable or goes away entirely.

Embracing my inner imposter

In December I took a new role at work. I’m no longer writing code and, instead, I’ve stepped into a role as a manager of a team that writes code. While I’ve lead teams, crews and projects in the past this was a scary jump. To put it simply, I don’t know what I don’t know and the view from my current seat is very different from the view of my previous seat.

Once again I’m the imposter as I jump into situations and issues I know nothing about in hopes of pulling out the “right” outcome. It is, by far, one of the best things I could be doing with all that experience as the imposter who wasn’t “serious.” It turns out, in the end, that all my other experience can bring a heck of a lot of insight that those who were hyper-focused just don’t have.